Telling true stories is a booming business in China

Society & Culture

Creative nonfiction is thriving in the People’s Republic. To journalists, it provides creative and financial space that is hard to find elsewhere in media. To the real-life protagonists, it provides new opportunities to make their stories heard.

Note: Where English references are unavailable, this article links to Chinese sources.

Two things drove former political reporter Du Qiang 杜强 to pursue the story of a young man from northeast China who in 2011 got caught up in a horrific murder case while fishing for cuttlefish on the Pacific Ocean.

First, Du wanted to call attention to the plight of China’s ocean fishermen, working in an underregulated industry that is a regular cause of tragedy. Second, he knew it was a great story: What had led the 11 men who returned alive to China on the Shandong No. 2682 trawler to murder 22 of their crewmates?

Readers agreed. The memories of Zhao Mucheng 赵木成 — who had just finished serving a four-year prison sentence — written up by Du as a suspenseful first-person account in the Chinese edition of the men’s magazine Esquire, went viral after publication in January of last year. After more than 30 million read the story, the online video company Leshi bought the rights for an undisclosed price. “I made a lot of money,” 29-year-old Du tells me almost apologetically. An audio version of the story, with the sounds of waves and brawling fishermen accompanying the narration, was released on an online radio website last November.

Overnight successes like Du’s, in which a single successful literary rendering of a true story can make one rich, have made some industry observers talk of a “feverish bubble.” In the last two years, the previously marginal genre has rapidly gained a wider audience. Dozens of online reading platforms (some new, others associated with existing brands), writing programs, and chat groups attract a crowd of mostly urban, middle-class readers.

While the internet enables more and more ordinary Chinese to write up their stories, for media professionals, the trend is a highlight in an otherwise bleak media landscape, both in terms of creative opportunity and financial payback.

Why now?

“As in other countries, Chinese readers are a bit tired of low-quality online content,” says Shen Yanni 沈燕妮, editor-in-chief at online nonfiction platform TheLivings (rénjiān, 人间), which is part of internet company NetEase. “The appetite for true stories, too, is universal.” Shen says that for NetEase, a NASDAQ-listed web portal company founded in the 1990s, adding a nonfiction channel was a way to add to its reputation as a creative news provider. (Since its foundation in August 2015, TheLivings has accumulated over 200,000 followers. Its content also features prominently on the NetEase app, which has 3 million users.)

The current popularity of literary journalism could be explained as China’s slightly late arrival to a global interest in nonfiction storytelling, which includes the awarding of last year’s Nobel Prize in Literature to Svetlana Alexievich, the first time the prize went to an author of nonfiction. The Chinese term itself — fēixūgòu 非虚构 — is a translation from the English “creative nonfiction,” which only recently started replacing existing Chinese terms for nonfiction types of writing (see this explanation in Chinese).

But to many of its practitioners, there are China-specific reasons at play as well. Broadly shared is the sense that China today is a story treasure trove of world-class proportions. These stories, of China’s breakneck societal change and the ways in which it affects individuals, need to be told better and in greater numbers. “China’s dominant story today is that of Jack Ma (and countless varieties on that story),” reads the introduction to a printed story collection of NoonStory, one of the earliest and best-known dedicated nonfiction platforms, which recently celebrated its second anniversary. “We want to pick up topics that others are abandoning…that are at risk of being forgotten for not being mainstream enough.”

The Peter Hessler factor

Peter Hessler, writer for the New Yorker. Photo courtesy ChinaFile

One catalyst to this motivation to “record the times,” as it is often put, did come from the West. For many Chinese readers, it was the New Yorker writer Peter Hessler’s observations of ordinary Chinese that first introduced them to the genre. The best-selling Chinese translations of several of Hessler’s books (published in 2011–2013) have sold over 600,000 copies in mainland China.

“The timing was right,” explains Shanghai Translation Publishing House editor Zhang Jiren 张吉人. Since introducing Hessler into China, Zhang has continued to put out a nonfiction book series, the first of its kind in China. He thinks the growing market for nonfiction, including Hessler’s, fits with a wider trend toward reflection on China’s development. “There is now more self-confidence, a cultural self-confidence, in China than in the 1990s or 00s,” he notes. (This increase in confidence helped Chinese readers accept the sometimes critical observations on life in China by an American author like Hessler, while also serving as a starting point for people’s own reflections.)

Add to that a widely perceived crisis in Chinese fiction’s ability to connect to society and an accelerated decline of traditional media under financial and political pressures, and nonfiction writing emerges as an alternative. “In writing, it is probably the most direct way to get at the spirit of the times,” says sociologist Liang Hong 梁鸿, whose 2010 account of her return to her home village in Henan was one of the first Chinese books to be labeled as nonfiction.

Liang Hong, sociologist. / Photo courtesy of Liang Hong
Liang Hong, sociologist. / Photo courtesy of Liang Hong

In an interview, Liang brings up Du’s account of the 2011 Pacific Ocean massacre. In addition to the crew being cheated and the psychological group pressures that set off the killing spree, there is the broader social context. Young men like Zhao often choose to become fishermen because there are no other employment options in their home regions, and they need to earn enough money to secure a future marriage.

“It might be extreme, but the story still reflects something fundamental about widespread anxiety in China today. What is the status of an individual in this society? It is an inner anxiety, no longer connected to being hungry.”

The space to tell stories that matter

For journalists — or former ones, as many have left traditional media for more lucrative positions in China’s internet industry and elsewhere — nonfiction fits the bill for a relatively free form of expression. More literary in style, it is seen as less politically charged than the long-form news stories for which especially Southern Media Group media were well known until the political room for such stories radically decreased under President Xi Jinping. (It doesn’t hurt that the genre was endorsed by People’s Literature, the nation’s foremost government-sponsored literary magazine, which started running a nonfiction section in 2010.)

David Bandurski, media researcher at Hong Kong University’s China Media Project, also sees more Chinese journalists moving toward creative nonfiction, which they feel might be an area to explore “deeper social and even political issues” outside traditional media. “To some extent, I think this is true,” he adds, noting that investigative reporting in China is in a much worse position than at any other time in the past 20 years.

Nonfiction writing often requires investigative work as well, but rather than pursuing a story’s news value, writers and editors focus on the human experience of an issue. While self-censorship is far from absent — and stories do occasionally get deleted from the Chinese internet — this approach allows for writing on topics that might otherwise not be addressed at all.

“There is no way this could have appeared in traditional media,” says Han Yuyan 韩玉砚 of the measured, intimate essay he wrote about his family’s return to their former home in Hubei, six years after they were forced to move in the name of the national South-North Water Transfer Project. Han’s story, written after he quit his job at a local TV station, is a rare nonofficial account of the megaproject aimed at diverting large amounts of water from southern rivers and supplying it to the dry north, which has received little coverage in both Chinese and international media.

The story is filled with telling details, such as that of an old walking path that was only made into a road after all residents were moved — “Finally a decent road, but no soul in sight.” But the story also leaves things out, most notably the political context of the moving process, to which there was resistance. Yet to the 29-year-old author, nonfiction writing — a concept he heard about from Beijing journalists passing through his home region — provides him with unprecedented room to “write about things that matter.”

Guo Yujie, author and editor at NoonStory. / Photo courtesy of Guo Yujie

Still, essays on neglected social issues, especially outside China’s cities, only make up part of current nonfiction writing, says Guo Yujie 郭玉洁, a well-known author and Han’s editor at NoonStory. Much of it is instead concerned with personal storytelling, or recording the lives of interesting individuals, such as Guo’s own detailed profile of a self-taught retired watchmaker in Shanghai.

“Because of the political restrictions, this sort of cultural writing gets conflated with the concept of nonfiction writing in China right now. But nonfiction could be many things, including more investigative work,” she says. “Ideally, we’d do it all.”

Instead, it is a combination of pragmatism and the interests of readers and writers of different backgrounds that influence editorial decision making, Guo explains. “I am almost 40. It is rare to see people my age, trained at a time when media were doing relatively well, and had some room to fulfill a social watchdog function, still working in the media. Nowadays, you don’t go into media if you’re politically interested. So our young writers want to write about music, about subcultures.”

For Zhang Mimi 张眯眯, a 30-year-old English teacher, the new platforms help her reach a broader reading audience. “I’ve always liked to record interesting parts of my life,” says Zhang, who only realized the social significance of her writings about her Chengdu college students at a sānběn dàxué 三本大学, or “band 3 university,” a little-known type of private university for students with relatively low scores in China’s central high school examinations, after discussing them with an editor at a storytelling platform.

Zhang, who writes with humor about her students’ performances and aspirations, says she was inspired by Peter Hessler’s descriptions of teaching at a teachers college in the region in the late 1990s.

Problems with the creative nonfiction industry

Looking to expand, many publishers of the genre cite a lack of experienced people to fill the positions that are opening up. “The base of the pyramid is too small,” says He Tao 何瑫, who at 30 is “head writer” at GQ, a magazine well known for its in-depth profiles of people. Well-funded men’s magazines like GQ have attracted writers from traditional media and play a significant role in the nonfiction writing landscape. “That means it is easy to rise if you’re a young ambitious writer, but it is not healthy for the field.”

One of the most popular pieces of Chinese nonfiction writing last year, an account of a 1986 rafting race down the Yangtze River between American and Chinese explorers, was accused of plagiarism. Nevertheless, the article, written by two young freelancers, quickly had its copyright sold to a movie company. The process confirmed suspicions that to some in the field, a story’s commercial potential trumps concerns over accuracy, and led to warnings against “going too fast.”

In general, it is still unclear how interested current investors will remain in financing nonfiction writing platforms. “In China, there is no such thing as someone investing in you simply for your cultural significance,” says Li Haipeng 李海鹏, former Southern Weekend journalist and editor-in-chief of People’s Magazine (人物杂志 rénwù zázhì). Li’s nonfiction writing team’s 2016 move to Tingdong Culture, a company owned by well-known author and race-car driver Han Han, was watched closely in media circles. “Maybe for a couple of years, but in the end, it comes down to your own ability to run a profit. You have to turn out enough quality stories. And sell enough of them to keep going,” says the veteran journalist, adding that he is still far from confident about the future of most of the new platforms.

At the same time, financial options for journalists or other writers to produce well-researched book-length nonfiction works, a form much more common in Western countries than in China, remain limited. “They don’t have that kind of time or money,” says aforementioned editor Zhang Jiren, who notes he would like to publish more Chinese nonfiction works.

However, more solutions are available to these issues than a couple of years ago. From a slowly diversifying film industry to writing platforms offering yearlong stipends and book contracts, the market for real-life stories is only just picking up.

Rather than complain about the varying quality of the online submissions that TheLivings receives, editor Shen Yanni sees it as a strength that the internet allows her to collect stories written by authors from all walks of life, an effect often described as the “microphone age” (麦克风时代 màikèfēng shídài). “It is more diverse and direct. The ‘media elite’ filter matters less now.”

Aspiring writers also have more ways to hone their skills. An array of nonfiction writing programs taught by well-known media professionals have emerged over the last year. Some are application-based and meet offline; others operate online and are open to anyone with a mobile payment account. A recent tutorial by GQ writer He attracted 2,220 participants who each paid 29 yuan for the two-hour session on blogging website Zhihu’s live channel. He thinks that more diverse moneymaking options will slowly attract talent back into the industry.

Reflecting on the impact of his breakthrough story about the fishing boat tragedy, Du Qiang, too, looks ahead. To most readers, he says, frowning slightly, his story was entertainment. And from the authorities, he never heard anything. “Too bad. As a journalist, you still hope for some sort of official response.”

He did hear from readers who decided against joining the fishery after reading his piece. And from captains who quit their job.

“But, mostly, it might encourage other writers to see that there is still a living to be made in this profession. Part of this might well be a bubble, but there are still too many stories to be told.”